Friday, September 2, 2011

Adaptability: It's a Competence!

My ten year nephew was recently visiting us and of course, we had to do the museums. We are so lucky to have the Smithsonian museums here in Washington D.C. and regardless of the number of times I visit one of them, I always learn something new or a thought is triggered. Well, during our visit to the Natural History museum, Noah (my nephew) decided he wanted to watch the giant tarantula spider eat her weekly meal.  I am a little arachnophobic so watching a tarantula devour her prey is not my idea of having fun! So, I was walking around looking at some of the other insects and reading the inscriptions above their cages. One of the inscriptions above a cage of exotic insects caught my attention and triggered a thought. It basically was reminding us that the reason these insects had survived for hundreds of years was because they knew how to adapt to their environment. I probably would not have thought too much about this inscription if I had not recently seen the movie, Creation, and come across a quote by Charles Darwin…. “It is not the strongest of the species who survives nor the most intelligent but the ones most responsive to change.”  Not considered very strong or highly intelligent, these exotic little bugs had adapted to what was going on around them and had survived!

I then begin to think about organizations and the need to adapt to challenges if they are going to thrive in these rather tumultuous times. While unemployment is at its highest level since 1982, a Conference Board report released in January 2010 indicated that only 45 percent of people who are working and were surveyed said they were satisfied with their jobs. This number fell from more than 61 percent who said they were satisfied in 1987, the first year the survey was conducted. How does an organization survive less near thrive if the internal barometer of job satisfaction is contributing to a lack of energy, enthusiasm, or employee engagement….all needed to meet the external demands and increasing complexity in the 21st century environment? 
In their Navigating through Complexity: System Thinking Guide, Herasymowych and Senko (2002) use an evocative weather metaphor to describe how increasing environmental change and complexity are creating a storm that few organizations are able to navigate.  I agree with their observations that “as the storm gains momentum, it lashes out in unpredictable ways, leaving many complex problems in its wake. You may deal with the resulting problems by trying to control what you can, or by trying to nullify the effects by keeping your nose down to get your work done. You may notice that almost every tack you take works less and less well, making you feel less competent to be effective. As change accelerates, it creates even more complexity, thus eroding your sense of competency, until all you have left are feelings of anger, hopelessness, and despair.”  Is this “storm” contributing to the increasing dissatisfaction we are seeing in many workplaces? If so, what are leaders supposed to do?
Effective leadership at all levels in an organization is a key driver for meeting the demands of our time. However, leaders must first demonstrate adaptability in their personal approach to leading organizational change. In other words (and although the bugs probably would not agree), adaptability must be recognized as a competence!
Dr. Stephen J. Zaccaro, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, identified adaptability as consisting of three core elements or characteristics: cognitive flexibility, emotional flexibility, and dispositional flexibility. Subsequent research has identified specific behaviors tied to each of these elements and found that having just one of these characteristics is not sufficient for leader adaptability. Leaders must exhibit two of the three characteristics to be perceived as adaptable. So, let’s get a better understanding of each one.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks. Some of the leadership behaviors that would be exhibited during the “storm” include nimble and divergent thinking; having an interest in developing new connections and new approaches; being able to appreciate and leverage differences; and having a knack for recognizing patterns and making sense of these patterns. There is evidence that we can continue to develop this flexibility as we mature but it is also possible to “get stuck” or plateau at a certain developmental level where we really are unable to use different thinking strategies or mental frameworks to understand what is going on around us. In other words, we can actually be in “over our heads” if the demands are exceeding our ability to be more cognitively flexible.
Emotional flexibility is the ability to manage our own emotions and deal adeptly with others’ emotions. Some of the leadership behaviors include being able to recognize our own emotions, preferences and intuition and be  able to self-regulate; having an increased awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns and is able to support others during change; being adept at engaging emotionally to help others get on board; and having a knack for building relationships across the organization. Self-management is one of the core skills contributing to emotional intelligence. It is dependent on our self-awareness and very important in helping us to not become “emotionally hijacked” during challenging or demanding situations. Both self-awareness and self-management antecedent to our ability to pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is going on with them as well as build relationships.
Dispositional flexibility (or personality-based flexibility) is the ability to remain optimistic and at the same time realistic. Adaptable leadership behaviors include being able to acknowledge a bad situation but also being able to visualize a preferred future; being genuinely and realistically optimistic about change and able to communicate that optimism to others; knowing our own tendencies and preferences related to change; and having a knack for rallying people to commit to and achieve goals. Many of us have probably not taken the time to examine and reflect how we react to change. We just know that we react! Some of us have a strong propensity for “mourning and groaning” while others pick up the baton and move smartly ahead with others following.
As we were hearing about hurricane Irene, many of my neighbors and I started getting ready so we would be able to weather the storm. We did not wait for the wind to start blowing or the rain to start falling! However, there were others up and down the Northeast coast who were dismissing the reports or hoping that the storm would make a detour at the last minute.  If you are a leader and you are already in the storm, you are probably just trying to keep the light house in view and hoping someone will be there to rescue the ship if it starts going down. As I said earlier, adaptability is a competence and the leadership behaviors associated with cognitive, emotional, and dispositional flexibility can be developed before the storm. What can you do to increase your adaptability?
First, you might want to get some feedback especially specific to your leadership performance during the last organizational or departmental “storm.” This feedback may come from a number of different sources including peers, direct reports, your boss, and even family members…anyone who may have come in contact with you as you were navigating the rough seas. Sometimes a 360 is useful but good coaches can also interview your circle of contacts and get some very useful feedback for you to use to identify areas for development and strategies to increase your adaptability. Next, identify challenging experiences where you can deliberately choose to practice different behaviors or develop new attitudes and perspectives. Changing a habit of thinking that has led to a certain behavior or behaviors can be a very uncomfortable and even exasperating experience. Therefore, having support in place is also very important. Support may be very individualized and comes in many forms including having a coach, mentors, and peers as well organizational structures, for example, formal leadership development program, peer coaching, learning circles or a community of practice. Feedback, challenge, and support may be thought of as the three-legged stool for helping to develop leader adaptability.
So, as I was staring at the bugs at the museum, I thought….a bug’s life is so much simpler than ours! It also occurred to me that these little insects had evolved over many, many years as they adapted to their environment.  I don’t know that as leaders we have the luxury of “many, many years” so I think gaining competence as an adaptive leader is an urgent challenge for most organizations. We will never go back to the “good ole days” when things were slower, life more predictable (at least we thought), and a command and control leadership style was acceptable. This is our new normal and as leaders we have to evolve to meet the demands. I agree with Robert Kegan (2009) who very astutely observes that “the challenge to change and improve is often misunderstood as a need to better ‘deal with’ or ‘cope with’ the greater complexity of the world. Coping and dealing involve adding new skills or widening our repertoire of responses. We are the same person we were before we learned to cope; we have simply added some new resources. We have learned, but we have not necessarily developed. Coping and dealing with are valuable skills, but they are actually insufficient for meeting today’s change challenges.”
If the bugs can develop new ways to meet their environmental challenges, surely we can do the same and not just survive, but thrive in our organizations! We may wander for a while but the wandering may be good for us as we explore, discover, reflect, and eventually move to a higher level of mental complexity better suited to meet the greater complexity of the world surrounding us. Remember, not all who wander are lost!